Thursday, September 25, 2008

Letters of Recommendation

Hi Tom,

After devouring your MFA book and every single archived post on the
blog, I can confidently say I would be lost without them both. You are
a wonderful map/compass/friendly neighborhood park ranger. Thank you.

I've got a quick question about letters of rec that I haven't seen
answered elsewhere. I'm applying for MFA programs in fiction this
winter. I've got a good idea of the people who will be writing letters
for me, and I've signed up for a letter service through my alma mater
(UC Berkeley) that will collect those letters and send them out to
grad schools. This lightens the burden on my recommenders--one letter,
one envelope, and they're done.

But here's the thing--I've seen several applications now that require
you to register your recommenders as part of the application, and some
schools that "strongly encourage" you to have your recommenders upload
their letters directly to the MFA program or grad school site. If I
was only applying to one or two schools, no problem. But with twelve
schools on my list, I'm worried about being a burden on my letter
writers. They're busy people! The more tasks that are required of
them, the higher likelihood that something will slip through the
cracks. (And that they'll come out of the experience distinctly averse
to recommending me in the future.)

Do I only ask for recommendations from people who love me enough to
deal with this craziness? Do I apply to fewer schools? Do I throw
"strong encouragement" to the wind and send letters in the mail as
usual?

Thanks ever so much,
Jenny

P.S. I dig the opening of "The Winged Girl." Looking forward to the book!

--------------------------

Thanks for your question, Jenny. I cannot emphasize this enough: It is a real pain to write letters of recommendation (at least I think that it is). I want to focus on the content of the letter, and not a lot of shenanigans surrounding 12 uploads etc.

Use the letter service. Don't ask your recommenders to do that other stuff. Your application fee to your potential schools goes to pay someone to take care of those letters of recommendation. Let them handle it.

Do apply to as many schools as you like. Honestly (and this is the most important part of the answer).... If a program loves your writing sample then they'll look at the letters, not before.

Rock on.
-- Tom

27 comments:

Mike Valente said...

I agree with Tom -- eventually, the letters will reach the grad school, and the grad school will pass them to the appropriate contacts in the Creative Writing department.

Even without the consolidation service, I think that it's easier to print twelve copies of the same letter than it is to upload it twelve different times.

Mike

kt said...

This question probably should have gone in the mailbag, but here's hoping it gets to someone.

UNC Greensboro does not require a statement of purpose at all, and the rec. letters are sent to the Graduate College, not the program. The only thing I need to send to the program is my writing sample, but it seems odd just to send 8-10 pages of poems in an envelope with no preamble or explanation. Should I include a CV? Or a...brief "thanks a bunch for reading these poems" cover letter?

Vigorously anxious,
kt

ReadingInRiverside said...

Dear Jenny,

I also attend UC Berkeley and actually asked a professor yesterday for my recommendations to MFA programs. He replied that he would be happy to, but he'd like to do it through our letter writing service. When I asked him if in his experience, most programs accept it, he said he'd be quite shocked if they didn't. But thank you for posing your question, it beats having to double-check if it's okay with all the schools I'm applying to!

P.S. I had a Jenny in my last English CRWT at Cal. How funny if you were her.

Morgan said...

Go Bears!

Emily A. Benton said...

I have the same approach: make it as easy as possible for your recs.

Do all the legwork - print out the rec. forms, fill in as many blanks as you can, stamp the envelopes, and mail everything in one package with at least a month in advance to your recommender (s).

I'm aiming to mail my packets out on Oct. 31 so mine can tackle this before Thanksgiving/Christmas. I've already emailed them to tell them so, and also to double check that they're aren't any time conflicts on their end.

I think this year I'm going to have everyone mail their signed & sealed envelopes back to ME and I'll include them in my packets to schools, instead of them mailing to schools directly. (As long as it's sealed, you're fine.) This way I won't have to worry or receive those horrible emails from English Depts. stating that they're "one letter short" of a complete application.

eliminate the "what if" 's!

also, I wouldn't worry about the online uploading. Schools usually take the alternative, traditional snail mail letter as well. Call the school and ask if it's OK if you have any doubts.

Emily A. Benton said...

*there aren't

Eric T. said...

I keep waffling back and forth between online uploads and physical letters for my referees. Is it really much more difficult to upload a document online? I guess I don't know what is exactly going to be asked of my referee when they get that automated email, but I can't imagine it's much more than an online prompt asking them to fill out a bit of information and then upload their document/letter. Right?

Conversely, I throwing my referees a dozen coversheets and envelopes to seal and sign is just asking for trouble. What if they mix the wrong coversheet with the wrong letter? It's a ton of paperwork to ask of them to organize, right?

I know I'm just running myself around in circles at this point, but I can't help but to be ultra paranoid at this point in the process. Anyone have any suggestions/experiences to share?

martin said...

Eric,

I am going the online letter route for most of my schools. If I found a school that seemed to prefer hard copies (3 out of my 11), I printed out whichever form was necessary and sent it off, along with stamped envelopes. One of my recommenders advised that online letters were easier for everyone involved.

So, I also hope that those little automated emails do not lead them astray. I will be monitoring the situation closely.

Jenny Williams said...

Thanks, Tom, and everyone, for the comments. I've also emailed a couple of schools directly and everyone seems fine with the snail-mail, standard-form-letter sheet instead of their individual forms. Seems like the content is much more important than the format in this case.

ReadingInRiverside--when did you graduate? I took a bunch of CW workshops from 2001-2004...

malcontent said...

I had my recommenders send their letters the old-fashioned way. I wasn't about to ask anyone to register at thirteen websites so that they could upload letters.

I sent each recommender a carefully prepared packet with stamped, addressed envelopes and a sticky on each to describe how the letter should be signed and sealed. I also sent the packets early enough that my letter-writers wouldn't feel in any rush.

I really wouldn't worry about the online forms.

Emily said...

I'm glad this question came up because I'd been wondering about the online uploads. It just seems like a bit of a hassle for the people who are kind enough to write my letters.

Also I like Emily Benton's thought of just having the recommenders send them back to me (sealed of course) so I absolutely KNOW they're getting where they need to go and on time.

rachelcoye said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Emily said...

Here's another question re: letters of recommendations....

I recently found out that one of my recommenders is an adjunct at one of the schools to which I want to apply. Is this a problem?

Thoughts?

AKZombie said...

So glad to know I'm not the only person worried about this. This past week I have been stressing over the schools who want recommenders to use the electronic form/method. I was practicing my speech to the recommender who has asked me to come in and engage in a little work session to crank out the letters, begging her to please respond to the electronic prompts. Then I decided to double-check all the websites, and all of them allow snailmail as well.

I meet with all my recommenders next week, and I'm taking them forms, a disk with a spreadsheet of addresses and contacts, address labels, etc., and then I'm going to pick up the letters and send them myself. I'm too much of a control freak to go with a service.

Eric T. said...

Re: Online uploads

Thanks for the responses. Based on the feedback, I think I'm sufficiently convinced. I'm going to low-tech it, keep everything as clean and organized as I can for my referees, and avoid the online upload, mostly because I'm such a control freak. There's just too many factors involved -- another one popped into my head the other day: what about spam filters?? Good lord. I hate the interweb.

Bsquared86 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bsquared86 said...

Thank you, Jenny, for submitting this question! I was just thinking about this same thing the other night. I thought that submitting online would be easier but with all that has been said here I see where it could be an issue.

Should I ask each recommender which they prefer?

I planned on doing most of my applications online, should I nix that idea and just do it all hard copy?

Jennifer said...

There was no way I was going to let it get complicated for my recommenders. I sent them stamped envelopes and told them to print out 12 copies of the same letter and stuff it in there. And that was it. With one exception. I had them mail the Montana back to me in a sealed envelope -- that school seems to desperately want the letters in the application packet.

But, yeah, at this point I say let the recommenders go low tech, and I'm sure the schools will be fine with it. They'll have to be. . . we are all doing it. . .

Tatertot said...

Wow, props to your university for actually having a letters program. I think this is one of the hardest parts of applying and it's nice to see a university give back to the students by actually providing a service like that.

Jason said...

emily:

It seems to me it could only be a problem if you feel ethically conflicted about potentially getting an inside advantage over other applicants. One would hope that personal relationships stay out of such decisions, but the poetry prize controversies of the last couple years remind us that this isn't always so. Incidentally, one of my potential referees just happens to be the *director* of one of the programs to which I'd be applying. But I guess I figure my chances at that particular program are so slim that it couldn't possibly make a difference. Shrug.

Josh said...

kt,

I would suggest sending some sort of brief cover letter. Not something as intensive as a CV, but something more along the lines of what you might send along with a submission to a magazine. Your name, your whereabouts, how much you appreciate them taking the time to consider your work, etc.

They'll inevitably throw it aside, but a little exordium never hurt no one.

And that is a Tom Waits allusion. But not to the creepy end of the song.

Nancy Rawlinson said...

Hi -- I have written many rec. letters for MFA students and I don't mind uploading info into an online form one bit...just sayin'.

Jess said...

I'm thinking of using a letter service (interfolio.com), and I was wondering how such a service would work with universities that have some sort of form or cover sheet for referees to fill out. Would I still need to find a way to get my referees to fill out such sheets/forms, or would skipping them not be a problem?

Also, if anyone has experience dealing with Interfolio, I'd love to hear what you think of it.

Jess said...

whatever you decide to do (I, too, recommend the old-fashioned way) it's a good idea to have a follow-up "thank-you letter" before the deadline. This is a nice way to say, Dear So-and-So, thank you for uploading my recommendation. Not only does this express your appreciation, it also gently reminds them of what needs to be done.

undertheeaves said...

Does anyone know if Texas State has a specific recommendation form? I can't find anything on their website.

If they don't, can my LOR writers do as they like?

Thanks!

julianna said...

As a prof and as someone who still applies for grants and has to ask for letters, it's all part of the game -- and I never hate the player. Be as ambitious as you want!
I grumble about writing letters, but never about the students asking for them. Never.
It's just the way it is. Part of the job.
Don't hold back on the recommender's account.

Julianna Baggott, Asst. Director, Florida State

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